By Swami Sadasivananda
“In Thy Presence is fullness of joy,
The simplicity that is Christ.”
This article contains the Spiritual Maxims of one Nicholas Herman of Lorraine, a lowly born and unlearned man; who, after having been a soldier and a footman, was admitted a lay brother among the Carmelites Deschausses (bare-footed) at Paris in 1666, where he served in the kitchen of the community. He was afterwards known by the name of Brother Lawrence. He died in February 1691, at the advanced age of eighty, after a life the true saintliness of which can be well realized from his words of guidance. ( Almost the entirety of this article is paraphrased or directly quoted from The Practice of the Presence of God, The Complete Book, by Brother Lawrence. )
“Herein you will not find set out a devotion which is merely speculative, or which can only be practiced in a cloister. No, there is an obligation laid on every man to worship God and to love Him, and we cannot carry out this solemn duty as we ought, unless our heart is knit in love to God, and our communion is so close as to constrain us to run to Him at every moment, just like little children, who cannot stand upright without their mother’s arms of love.”
Brother Lawrence, an earnest seeker of God, had a transforming experience at the age of 18. He was a changed person since then and till the last day of his life he was in commune with God to whom he surrendered himself entirely. His experience, and thus his guidance has a special significance as the theme is universal, and so is the endeavor to practice the Presence of God. The practice or sadhana explained herein is referred to thus in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; (I-23): “Isvarapranidhanadva”.
Brother Lawrence thus sought “Goodness”, in the highest sense of the word proclaimed by his Lord Jesus: “Only God is Good.” It is necessary to be good, but the good must then progress on to become godlike, to be a deva, a “shining one” filled with the Divine Light. Fixing their mind on God they make themselves living offerings. That is why the Manu Smriti (Laws of Manu) says that the greatest sacrifice is the offering of ourselves (purushamedha). And Patanjali says: “Samadhi is attained by offering our lives to God (Isvarapranidhana).”
God is the essence and the apex of Consciousness, so Patanjali further says: “In Him is the highest limit of omniscience.” (Yoga Sutras 1:25) In seeking constant abidance with this highest limit of omniscience, Brother Lawrence eventually abandoned all previously set devotions except those prescribed to his station within the Carmelite Society. Often he said: “All that he had heard others say, all that he had found in books, all that he had himself written, seemed savorless, dull and heavy, when compared with what faith had unfolded to him of the unspeakable riches of God and of Jesus Christ. He alone can reveal Himself to us; we toil and exercise our mind in reason and in science, forgetting that therein we can see only a copy, whilst we neglect to gaze on the Incomparable Original. In the depths of our soul, God reveals Himself, could we but realize it, yet we will not look there for Him. We leave Him to spend our time in fooleries, and affect disdain at commune with Him, Who is ever present, Who is our King.”
Not only did Brother Lawrence perceive God as present in his soul by faith, but also in all events of life, whensoever they befell, instantly he could arise and seek the Presence of God. Yet he confessed that it was hard at first, that many a time he had been unmindful of this practice, but that, after humble prayer and confession to God of his failure, he had betaken himself to it again without trouble.
Of his life within God, his failures and attainments, he left a legacy of direction for those who would likewise seek “The Way, the Truth, and the Light (Life) in the Presence of God.” Thus his declaration most central to this undertaking was: “That the Presence of God can be reached rather by the heart and by love than by understanding. In the way of God thoughts count for little, love is everything.”
“We search for stated ways and methods of learning how to love God, and to come to that love we disquiet our minds by I know not how many devices; we give ourselves a world of trouble and pursue a multitude of practices to attain to a sense of the Presence of God. And yet it is so simple. How very much shorter it is and easier to do our common business purely for the love of God, to set His consecrating mark on all we lay our hands to, and thereby to foster the sense of His abiding Presence by communion of our heart with His! There is no need either of art or science; just as we are, we can go to Him, simply and with a single heart.”
He no longer perplexed himself with thoughts of virtue, or of his salvation. He entirely forgot self; he never any longer thought of heaven or hell or his past sins or his deeds of striving for goodness and compassion. In the Presence of God he entered upon a perfect peace; after which he commended himself to God, as he used to say: “For life and for death, for time and for eternity – For we are made for God, and for Him alone.”
His one method of going to God and abiding in His Presence was to do all for the love of Him.
When we enter upon spiritual life, we ought to consider thoroughly what we are, probing to the very depth. Though creatures made for God, we are prone to all manner of maladies and subject to countless infirmities, which distress us and impair the soul’s health, rendering us wavering and unstable in our humors and dispositions. We must believe steadfastly, never once doubting, that all such is from God and for our good; that it is God’s will to visit us therein.
“Good when He gives, supremely good;
Nor less when He denies.
Afflictions, from His sovereign hand,
Are blessings in disguise.”
Sri Ramana Maharshi, also declared this truth in conversation with Paramahansa Yogananda, evidenced in Talks #107:
Swami Yogananda: “Why does God permit suffering in the world? Should He not with His omnipotence do away with it at one stroke and ordain the universal realisation of God?”
Maharshi: “Suffering is the way for Realization of God.”
Swami Yogananda: “Should He not ordain differently?”
Maharshi: “It is the way.”
Brother Lawrence entreats us that we: “Must do all things thoughtfully and soberly, without impetuosity or precipitancy, with denotes a mind undisciplined. We must go about our labors quietly, calmly, and lovingly, entreating Him to prosper the works of our hands; thus keeping heart and mind fixed on God.
Sri Ramana Maharshi echoed this same truth when saying in Talks #91:
“The nature of the mind to wander. One must bring one’s thoughts to bear on God. By long practice the mind is controlled and made steady.”
“That useless thoughts spoil all: that the mischief began there; but that we ought to be diligent to reject them as soon as we perceived their impertinence to the matter at hand, or to our salvation; and return to our communion with God. When we are busied, as well as while meditating on spiritual things, even in our time of set devotion, whilst our voice is rising in prayer, we ought to cease for one brief moment, as often as we can, to worship God in the depths of our being, to taste Him though it be in passing, to touch Him though as it were by stealth. Since you cannot but know that God is with you in all you undertake, that He is at the very depth and center of your soul, why should you not thus pause an instant from time to time in your outward business, and even in the act of prayer, to worship Him with your soul, to praise Him, to entreat His aid, to offer Him the service of your heart, and give Him thanks for all His loving-kindness and tender-mercies?”
Brother Lawrence emphasizes that necessity is laid upon us to examine ourselves with diligence and to find out what are the virtues, which we chiefly lack, and which are the hardest for us to acquire. We should seek to learn the failures in virtue that most easily beset us, and the times and occasions, and through which associations we do most often fall. For the world, and association within it, is fraught with danger. So much so that reliance upon God’s grace is paramount.
“A soul is more dependant on grace, the higher the perfection to which it aspires; and the grace of God is the more needful for each moment, as without it the soul can do nothing. The world, the flesh and the association with evil join forces and assault the soul so straitly and so untiringly that, without humble reliance on the ever-present aid of God, they drag the soul down in spite of all resistance. Thus to rely seems hard to nature, but grace makes it become easy, and brings with it joy.”
In this same regard, Sanatana Dharma entreats us to “Seek satsanga…while abandoning dussanga.” (Narada Bhakti Sutras II: 42,43)
A proper understanding of the Sanskrit words satsanga (good association) and dussanga (evil association) is essential. Especially when applying them not only in the context of worldly associations, but as is more precisely scripturally intended, to associations within the mind. Here the spiritual maxim: “As above, so below… As without, so within” is applicable.
The gopis in satsangha with Radha, yearning for the Lord
While good association with others enables one to develop purity (sattwa) and is the gateway to Liberation, evil association intensifies distraction and inertia (rajas and tamas), and is the gateway to hellish conditions in life. But even more harmful to the soul is the effect of evil association. There is nothing so disastrous in an aspirant’s life as when evil association nourishes the mental impurities of anger, hate, greed, pride, egoism, selfishness, hypocrisy and passion. Once these mental impurities become strong through external nourishment, they become formidable enemies of the soul in and of themselves. They then no longer need to rely on external sustenance, for through mainly memory, imagination and fantasy they, as Brother Lawrence warns us, “assault the soul untiringly.”
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The Spiritual Maxims of Brother Lawrence systematically guides us through the means for attaining unto the Presence of God.
1. The first is a great purity of life; in guarding ourselves with care lest we should do or say or think on anything, which might be displeasing to God.
2. Second is a great faithfulness in the practice of His Presence, and in keeping the soul’s gaze fixed on God in faith, calmly, humbly, lovingly, without allowing an entrance to anxious cares and disquietude.
3. Make it your study, before taking up any task to look to God, be it only for a moment, as also when you are engaged thereon, and lastly when you have performed the same. And forasmuch as without time and patience this practice cannot be attained, be not disheartened at your many falls; truly this habit can only be formed with difficulty, yet when it is so formed, how great will be your joy therein.
4. Let us mark well, however, that this intercourse with God is held in the depth of our being; there it is that the soul speaks to God, heart to heart, and over the soul thus holding converse there steals a great and profound peace. All that passes without concerns the soul no more than a fire of straw, which the more it flares, the sooner burns itself out; and rarely indeed do the cares of the world ever intrude to trouble the peace that is within.
5. It is here therefore, in the heart, that we ought to strive to make a habit of this gaze on God; but that which is needful to bring the heart to this obedience we must do, as has been said, quite simply, without strain or study.
6. When the mind, for lack of discipline when first engaged in this practice, has contracted bad habits of wandering and dissipation, such habits are difficult to overcome, and commonly draw us, even against our will, to things of earth. One remedy for this is to humbly offer prayer to God. A multiplicity of words in prayer is not advised; discursive forms of prayer are often an occasion for wandering.
7. One way to recall easily the mind in time of prayer, and to preserve it more in rest, is not to let it wander too far at other times.
8. This practice of the Presence of God is somewhat hard at the outset, yet, pursued faithfully, it works imperceptibly within the soul most marvelous effects; it draws down God’s grace abundantly, and leads the soul insensibly to the ever-present vision of God, loving and beloved, which is the most spiritual and most real, the most free and most life-giving manner of prayer.
9. Remember that to attain this state, we must control the senses, inasmuch as no soul, which takes delight in earthly things above those in their Creator, can find full joy in the Presence of God; to be with Him we must leave behind the creature.
Thus, Brother Lawrence compassionately entreats us to ‘seek and find’, to ‘knock and the door will be opened unto us’, for his final guidance is:
“All things are possible to him who believes, they are less difficult to him who hopes, they are easier to him who loves, and still more easy to him who practices and perseveres in these three virtues…
Believe me, count as lost each day you have not used in loving God.”
Just prior to the final moment when this lover of the Beloved passed away in the embrace of His Lord, a brother asked him if he was at ease and what his mind was busied with? He said:
“I am doing what I shall do, through all eternity – blessing God, praising God, adoring God, giving him the love of my whole heart. It is our one business, my brethren, to worship Him and love Him, without thought of anything else.”
The brethren then begged him to entreat of God for them to possess the true spirit of prayer. Brother Lawrence, without pain or struggle, without losing in the slightest the use of any of his faculties, in perfect peace and calm replied:
“There was need of labor on his part also
to make himself worthy of such a gift.”
You can access Swami Sadasivananda’s website at http://www.ramanateaching.org/
Chuang Tzu said: “The beggar who guards his mind and fears the waywardness of his thoughts, burns through every bond with the fire of his vigilance. The beggar who guards his mind and fears his own confusion cannot fall. He has found the way to peace”.
In the above saying, a beggar is a man who has not considered himself rich in anything. Therefore he never thinks nor behaves as if he is superior to anyone. A beggar is a man who never claims anything to himself. A beggar is a man who receives everything that life offers and never considers that he is either the owner of what he receives, or that he deserves what he receives. With such a manner, with such a way of seeing and experiencing his earthly and worldly existence he transforms this earthly and worldly existence into Divine Graces. Divine Graces are by definition undeserved favors and unmerited assistance. That is why Jesus Christ said “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mathew 5:3)
The man who lives in such a manner is ego-less or nothing or a big fat zero or is no longer the center of life experiences. This man experiences genuine peace. A genuine peace, because he has experienced the Kingdom of Heaven, here and now on this earth.
This man has come to understand that there is no need of him to be at the center of any experience, he is always in the background, happy by just contemplating and watching. Even when he takes a role -either for himself or for others- he attributes nothing to himself, but only contemplates and watches the Majesty and Magnificence of the overall panorama of the experience. He is always submerged in the Divine Graces of the Kingdom of Heaven. This overall panorama will guide his actions. The Lord will guide his steps.
He has known that it is his own way of thinking -agreed upon by everyone- that convinces him that he is needed to live and function and all the rest of his “worldly” activities in a fixed particular way.
This beggar has discovered the simple truth that says “there is no Need of me, I am out of the way, I am no longer at the center in any way whatsoever and therefore the experience is Majestic, Magnificent and Peaceful”.
He needs nothing and he desires nothing and everything is fulfilled on its own accord. Perfection surrounds him, because he is in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whenever a need is created in the experience either for him or anyone else, he never worries or feels burdened, because he knows it will be fulfilled without anyone’s help -but does not know how. The Lord will fulfill it.
Nevertheless, he is not always in this state. Unless he guards his mind it might stray again in the old habitual way where it convinces him that he needs to do something. That is how he falls back again on his knees and is delivered into confusion once more as it was before, and returns to the center of the experience due to his old worldly mode of thinking.
Abu Bakr Al Shibly -the Sufi master- said:” I guarded my mind for twenty years, then my mind guarded me for another twenty, then a state came where my mind and I were guarded forever”.
Continuously guarding his mind and whenever he comes in contact with a worldly incident that might trigger the old habit, the beggar immediately reminds himself of the fact that he is not needed and how Majestic, Magnificent and Peaceful the Experience is, for he is in the Kingdom of Heaven, where Perfection reigns.
When this happens, he takes a step or two back and leaves the panorama once more empty of him and become contented by just contemplating again the whole scene. Accordingly, everything takes care of everything, The Lord takes care. Majesty, Magnificence and Peace are re-established once more. The Divine Graces shower again. That is how by being vigilant he faces life.
Therefore, he starts appreciating and cultivating Faith in the fact of not being needed, together with the concomitant Experience of the Majesty, Magnificence and Peace .Until one day he will cultivate enough Faith in the fact of not being needed for anything, then this Majestic, Magnificent and Peaceful experience will be Permanent as it was before he has created his ego and its world. Even the disappearance of his body by death will not touch this Majestic Experience. Why death will not affect this Experience? Because nothing of him is needed for this Magnificent Experience, not even his physical body. Hence Ramana Maharshi’s last words: “I am not going away. Where could I go? I am here.”
To be attached to the world means that you are not yet ready for the Divine to take hold of your heart and mind. The way or path is only a preparation for you to be ready to receive the Divine. When you become ready, God Chooses you. You have to offer yourself to the Divine, you have to offer your heart and mind to the Divine in order that the Divine takes hold of your mind and heart. You are God’s bride. Unless you – the Bride – are ready, God will not choose you and come to take charge of you.
In the Gospel of Thomas Logion No.75 “Jesus said: “Those who are waiting at the door are many, but those who shall enter the bridal chamber are only the solitaries”. Again in Matthew 22:14 “For many are called, but few are chosen”.
For you to become the vehicle of God or the bride of God, you have to be solitary. You have to empty your heart and mind from everything but Him. You have to empty your heart and mind from yourself and your world. Nothing should distract you from your way and nothing should occupy your heart or mind. Anything that occupies your heart and mind is a barrier, a dam between you and the Divine. Solitary means, you want only God to reside in your heart and mind and to take charge of your whole life, as if you are offering your life to him as a sacrifice or as a token for your devotion to Him. When God takes hold of you, then you have found your solitary jewel, a solitary jewel that will make your life the richest of the rich. God will not accept from you anything less than your whole life. If your heart and mind contain anything besides God, then you are not of the solitary, you are not of the chosen and you will not be chosen.
Al Junaid, also called the glass-maker, the great Sufi Master, said: ” The Divine takes hold of man’s heart and mind, till this man experiences nothing other than the Divine, as if he was possessed by the Divine”.